The men of Minneapolis

The men of Minneapolis

How much of the conflict at Minneapolis in 1888 could be attributed to theological differences and how much to personality clashes?

George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Personality conflict was a central element in the struggle that took place at the 1888 General Conference meetings. The champions of "old guard" orthodoxy were George I. Butler (1834-1918), president of the General Conference, 1871-1874 and 1880-1888, and Uriah Smith (1832-1903), editor of the Review and Herald and the church's acknowledged authority on prophetic interpretation.

The "opposition forces" from the West Coast were represented by Alonzo T. Jones (1850-1923) and Ellet J. Waggoner (1855-1916), co-editors of the Signs of the Times and the American Sentinel. Their theological emphases were perceived by the old guard as a threat to some aspects of Adventist doctrine and traditional scriptural interpretation. Smith and Butler did not take such threats lightly.

George I. Butler

Butler had a lofty view of the role of the General Conference president. Never, he wrote in 1873 in reference to James and Ellen White, was there a "great movement in this world without a leader; and in the nature of things there cannot be. As nature bestows upon men a variety of gifts, it follows that some have clearer views than others of what best advances the cause. And the best good of all interested in any given object will be attained by intelligently following the counsels of those best qualified to guide."1

Butler, who had a draft of leadership blood in his veins (his grandfather was governor of Vermont from 1826 to 1828), adopted this high view of leader ship for himself. He saw himself not only as a strong leader who should rule from the top, but also as a theological watch dog for the denomination. After all, he wrote to Ellen White just prior to the convening of the 1888 session, did not he hold "the highest position that our people could impose"?2

Mrs. White indicated that she was not nearly as impressed as Butler with his lofty view of the denomination's presidency. "I fail, "she wrote, "to discover in your letter the right ring. . . . You must not think that the Lord has placed you [and Elder Smith] in the position that you now occupy as the only men who are to decide as to whether any more light and truth shall come to God's people." She further chided Butler for having mingled his own "natural traits of character" with his work, for possessing false ideas of his position in the denomination, for turning his mind into "wrong channels," and for referring to Jones and Waggoner as editorial fledglings.3

Such counsel, unfortunately, did not turn the mentally exhausted president from his course. Near the end of the 1888 General Conference session Mrs. White wrote that "Elder Butler . . . has been in office three years too long and now all humility and lowliness of mind has departed from him. He thinks his position gives him such power that his voice is infallible." 4 Given this early run-in with administrative "kingly power," it is perhaps not surprising that both Jones and Waggoner later turned against the concept of denominational organization and especially the presidential system. 5

Uriah Smith

Uriah Smith was of much the same mind as Butler. Having been with the Review since the early 1850s, he had by 1888 served as its editor for nearly 25 years. In many ways he saw himself more as the journal's proprietor than its editor. Like Butler, Smith viewed himself as a guardian of theological orthodoxy. Smith succinctly stated his editorial pol icy in regard to Jones in 1892: "Having by long study, and years of observation in the work, become settled on certain principles, I am not prepared to flop over at the suggestion of every novice." 6 From all indications it is safe to surmise that he held the same position in regard to Jones and Waggoner in 1888. Neither he nor Butler had the slightest inclination to "flop over" in the face of the younger men from California.

The attitude exhibited by the younger men did not help matters much. As Ellen White put it in 1887, Waggoner lacked "humility" and "meekness," while Jones needed to cultivate "practical godliness." 7 Jones's personality was particularly calibrated against winning friends and gaining the sympathy of his enemies. Mrs. White repeatedly warned him against his harsh speech toward others, but Jones found it almost impossible to distinguish between frankness and harshness. This was particularly damaging be cause he considered frankness a virtue.

Alonzo T. Jones

Formerly a frontier Army sergeant, Jones maintained an authoritarian demeanor. That personality trait, coupled with his cocksure belief that he was always right, did much to set a negative tone at the Minneapolis meetings. At one point Jones blurted out to the delegates that he should not be held responsible for Smith's ignorance of certain historical details related to Daniel 7. 8

His manner did not mollify the "nonflopping" Smith, but caused him and his friends to become more defensive against the "new" ideas.

Ellet J. Waggoner

At 33 Waggoner was the youngest of the major contestants at Minneapolis.

He earned an M. D. degree in New York City in 1878, but became dissatisfied with medical practice and entered the ministry. In 1884 he was called to assist his father, J. H. Waggoner, who was editor of the Signs of the Times.

The major theological turning point in young Waggoner's life took place at a campmeeting at Healdsburg, California, in October 1882. During a discourse he experienced a vision-like encounter. "Suddenly," he reported, "a light shone about me, and the tent seemed illumined, as though the sun were shining; I saw Christ crucified for me, and to me was revealed for the first time in my life the fact that God loved me, and that Christ gave Himself for me personally." As a result of this experience, Waggoner dedicated his life to discovering "God's love for individual sinners" in the Bible, and to preaching that message.9

It was that "vision" that eventually led Waggoner into an in-depth study of the book of Galatians, a study that would bring him into direct confrontation with the Smith-Butler forces at the 1888 General Conference session. True to his 1882 experience, Waggoner discovered the gospel in the book of Galatians. According to Waggoner the law in Galatians was the Ten Commandments. Thus, as he summed up his position, the ten-commandment/schoolmaster law brings us " 'unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.' " 10

Issues developed before 1888

That position, which Waggoner began to publish in the Signs and to teach at Healdsburg College between 1884 and 1886, flew in the face of 30 years of Adventist theology. Ever since the mid-1850s the denomination's leading ministers had taught that the law in Galatians was the ceremonial law. Butler and Smith viewed Waggoner's position as undermining the denomination's theology of the Sabbath at a time when the United States was facing strong pressure for national Sunday legislation.

Jones, meanwhile, was stirring up theological innovations in another area, publishing them in the Signs, and teaching them at Healdsburg. His special area of irritation to the "leading brethren" concerned the identification of the 10 kingdoms of Daniel 7. An untiring student of history and prophecy, Jones concluded that the historic Adventist position on the kingdoms had been wrong.

Such a conclusion put him crosswise with Uriah Smith, author of Thoughts on Daniel and the Revelation and the heretofore-unchallenged interpreter of prophecy in Adventist circles. Jones's conclusion, thundered Butler, proved him to be a troublemaker, since he advocated an interpretation "contrary to the long-established faith of our people taken 40 years ago." He bitterly complained that "a crop of young men are rising who venture to publish their pet opinions broadcast to the world, which are essentially different and contrary to the long-established position held among us."11

The Smith-Butler coalition sought to crush the new teachings in a behind-the-scenes battle at the 1886 General Conference session, but after struggling for several hours the investigating commit tee split in a four to five vote. "The question,'' wrote Butler, "was whether we should take this into the Conference and have a big public fight over it." 12 Not willing to risk an open confrontation on such a divisive issue, Butler settled for presenting a compromise position before a business session of the delegates. As a result, the business session approved a resolution that "doctrinal views not held by a fair majority of our people" were not to be made a part of the instruction in Adventist schools or published in denominational papers "as if they were the established doctrines of this people, be fore they are examined and approved by the leading brethren of experience." 13

That resolution, however, did little to solve the issues. They continued to smolder until the 1888 General Conference meetings, when they became major agenda items. Their inclusion on the agenda infuriated the General Conference president. "My only regret," he penned on the eve of the meetings, was "that Elder Smith and I did not just wade into them [the new teachings] and show them up in the widest channels possible" when they were first put in print. 14

Butler, who was ill, could not attend the 1888 meetings. He did, however, send a telegram to his followers to "stand by the old landmarks." As a result, his followers dug in for battle. They would not let down their stricken leader or deny traditional Adventist orthodoxy. Ellen White, on the other hand, counseled the delegates to disregard the messages Butler was sending from Battle Creek.15

During the 1888 meetings, Smith wrangled with Jones over the identity of the 10 kingdoms of Daniel 7, and Wag goner and J. H. Morrison (president of the Iowa Conference and a skilled debater) presented opposing positions on the law in Galatians. Ellen White, meanwhile, sought to mediate between the sides and called for openness, Christian courtesy, and honest Bible study. She did not assume the role of a theological authority, nor did she seek to settle the arguments by using her own writings even though the old guard had placed her interpretation of the law in Galatians at the center of their rationale for maintaining the traditional position.

The continuing controversy

The conference settled none of the theological differences. Jones and Smith continued to oppose each other on prophetic interpretation throughout the 1890s. More important, however, was the continuing bitterness over the problem in Galatians.

While it was the dispute about the law in Galatians that caused the furor at the 1888 meetings, that issue was not central to the minds of Jones and Waggoner after the session. Waggoner had preached righteousness by faith in Christ in the Galatians context, and it was that salvific emphasis that he and Jones, along with Ellen White, continued to preach during the next few years as they took the message of Minneapolis to the people. Between 1888 and 1891 they spoke at Adventist gatherings across the nation as they uplifted Christ, His love, and His righteousness. The title of Waggoner's 1890 book, Christ and His Righteousness, sums up their emphasis. Their united work, however, was broken up in 1891 by Ellen White's departure for Australia and Waggoner's assignment as editor of Present Truth in Great Britain a position he held until 1902. Jones, mean while, remained in the United States. Along with championing the message of righteousness by faith, he served as the denomination's foremost leader in the cause of religious liberty. In 1897 he replaced Smith as editor of the Review and Herald.

The Smith-Butler forces did not fare so well in the post-Minneapolis period. They continued to harbor strong feelings over the Galatians issue and the challenge to their authority. Their emotional reaction to the problem and to the personalities of Jones and Waggoner colored their reaction to the message of righteousness by faith, which Butler had up lifted in the Review in 1884 and Smith repeatedly claimed to believe. 16 They seemed unable to disentangle that mes sage from their stand on Galatians at the 1888 General Conference session.

Soon after the 1888 meetings, Butler retired to Florida in broken health. Although he recovered after a short period, his wife became an invalid the next year. As a result, he was out of denominational employment for 12 years, supporting himself by growing oranges.

Smith remained as editor of the Review until 1897, sparring with Jones over prophetic interpretation and other issues. His editorship during those years, however, was a downhill battle in the face of the popularity of the charismatic Jones, who, by late 1892, had become the most listened to ministerial voice in American Adventism. In 1897 Smith received his ultimate defeat when Jones was appointed editor and he was made Jones's assistant editor on the Review staff.

During the early 1890s the Smith-Butler forces began to come out of the fog regarding the doctrine of righteousness by faith as it related to the 1888 controversy. The first major turning point took place at the ministers' school held in Battle Creek during the spring of 1890. During those meetings many of the old-guard ministers began to see that the law in Galatians had not been the real issue at Minneapolis. That insight brought several confessions; others followed later.17


All three of the ring leaders against the White-Waggoner-Jones team at Minneapolis eventually confessed their error on righteousness by faith. Smith was the first to topple. In January 1891, following a Week of Prayer reading penned by Ellen White that emphasized repentance in relation to righteousness by faith, he called for a meeting with her and several leading ministers, and there confessed many of the errors he had made at Minneapolis. Ellen White wrote that Smith "had fallen on the Rock and was bro ken." Taking Smith by the hand, she "told him that he had said in his confession all that he could have said." The whole experience, reported by General Conference president O. A. Olsen, created "quite a sensation in Battle Creek, and the Lord is working for us in a special manner, and the way is opening up for others to clear themselves." 18 Smith's confession was followed in the summer of 1892 by that of J. H. Morrison, who had represented Butler as the chief spokes man for the traditionalists on the Galatians issue at Minneapolis. 19

Butler was the last of the old guard Minneapolis leaders to confess his error on righteousness by faith. "I fully believe," he penned in June 1893, "that God has blessed greatly to the good of His people and the cause the greater agitation of the doctrines of justification by faith, [and] the necessity of appropriating Christ's righteousness by faith." Butler claimed that he had never believed that he could be saved by his good works, but now was "well satisfied that additional light of great importance has been shining upon these subjects." He noted that he "freely endorsed" what he had previously resisted. 20

Perhaps the most revealing episode in regard to the unity of the denominational leadership on both sides of the righteousness by faith issue was a meeting called by Jones, Smith, and Dr. J. H. Kellogg at the latter's home during the 1893 General Conference session. Those present were O. A. Olsen, Dan T. Jones, Smith, W. W. Prescott, A. T. Jones, and Kellogg certainly a strong-minded group that represented the various strands of the struggle. The participants unanimously voted the following resolution: "That, in view of the facts and explanations elicited by this conference, there is no ground whatever for controversy or disagreement respecting the doctrine of righteousness by faith or concerning the relation of faith and works." 21 Their unanimity on those points, however, did not mean that they agreed on the law in Galatians. Smith and Butler, as we shall see, had difficulties on that point until their deaths.


If Butler and Smith tended to come further into the light on righteousness by faith during the 1890s, one of the great tragedies in Adventism during the same period was that Jones and Waggoner tended, as the decade progressed, toward a darkness created through pushing too far points related to the indwelling Christ. As a result, by 1891 they had gone to extremes in faith healing along holiness lines and were rebuked by Ellen White. 22 By 1894 they had slipped off the track in their teaching about organization. In the following years they taught that all human organization was wrong that the only correct church organization was where each individual was directly ruled by the Holy Spirit. 23 By the spring of 1889 Jones was teaching concepts of "translation faith" that the Holy Flesh movement would build upon. In 1898 he wrote in an editorial that "Perfect holiness embraces the flesh as well as the spirit."24 By 1897 Waggoner had moved into pantheism a logical extension if the doctrine of the indwelling Christ is taken too far. All of these problems and tendencies can be viewed as perversions of the doctrine of righteousness by faith. 25

Along with his overemphasis on holiness, by 1891 Jones was teaching extremes on church and state relationships that Ellen White and other church leaders repeatedly rebuked. By 1894 he was sponsoring Anna Rice as a second Adventist prophet, claiming that there were more to come. 26 Despite these difficulties, Ellen White stood firmly behind Jones and Waggoner and their 1888 message of righteousness by faith. Up through at least 1896 she repeatedly asserted that they were God's messengers in uplifting Christ. On the other hand, it goes beyond the facts to infer that she approved all their extensions of the basic message of righteousness by faith. In fact, she did not even agree with all their theology or scriptural interpretations related to the issue at the 1888 meetings. 27

It can be conjectured that despite her many pointed private rebukes to them during that period, her repeated public endorsement of Jones and Waggoner as God's messengers exacerbated their natural lack of humility. Her support did not have to have that effect, but such hearty public endorsements could be kept in balance only if Waggoner and Jones constantly applied their message of surrender to the Holy Spirit in their own lives. Evidently, however, that was the point where they fell short.

Jones, having largely failed as editor of the Review, was put out to pasture in 1901. He was replaced by Uriah Smith, who was delighted by the reversal. Unfortunately, however, Smith could not resist responding to the editorials Jones had published on the gospel in Galatians.

In 1902 the "new" editor sponsored a series by William Brickey that uplifted the pre-1888 position on the law in Galatians. While Smith still claimed that he believed in justification by faith, his revival of the Minneapolis controversy so upset the General Conference administration that it again removed him from the editorship. His replacement was W. W. Prescott, who had aligned himself with Jones and Waggoner in the early 1890s. These new defeats spelled the end for the aged warrior. The Review that announced the change also noted that Smith was seriously ill.28 Never fully recovering from the shock, he passed to his rest in Match 1903, at the age of 70.

Butler, meanwhile, came out of retirement after the death of his wife. In 1901, at age 67, he became president of the Florida Conference. From 1902 to 1907 he served as president of the Southern Union Conference. He remained surprisingly active in the work of the church until his death in 1918. He apparently never did alter his views on the law in Galatians, and the apostasy of Jones and Waggoner in the early years of the new century merely emboldened him in his position. 29

Paradoxically, it was the victors at 1888 rather than the losers who eventually left the denomination. Waggoner's most serious problems began in England. Not only did he espouse pantheism, but he began advocating the concept of "spiritual affinity" the view that a per son not rightfully a marriage partner in this life might be one in the life to come. His entanglement with Miss Edith Adams, a British nurse, led his wife to divorce him in 1905. The next year he married Miss Adams.

Though Waggoner separated from denominational employment during the Kellogg schism of 1903, he never became aggressive in his opposition to the church or its teachings. But while he retained his belief in righteousness by faith, by the time of his death in 1916, Waggoner had given up many of his distinctive Adventist beliefs. Shortly before his death he claimed, in what appears to be a carefully written document, that his rejection of such beliefs as the Adventist view on the sanctuary service had begun as early as 1891. 30

Jones, who called Waggoner his "blood'brother in 'the blood of the ever lasting covenant, preached Waggoner's funeral sermon.' " 31 Like Waggoner, he had sided with Kellogg in the Battle Creek schism in 1903, becoming president of the doctor's new Battle Creek College.

Having been rejected in his bid for denominational leadership in the late 1890s and the early years of the twentieth century, Jones, unlike Waggoner, be came the foremost public assailant of the Seventh-day Adventist denomination and of Ellen White. In a series of tracts and small books he attacked church organization, the concept of a denominational president, and the person and work of Ellen White. 32 His denominational credentials were removed in 1907 and his church membership in 1909. After 1915 he edited The American Sentinel of Religious Liberty, a private publication that took regular potshots at Adventists. His church affiliations were erratic during this period, his last fellowship being with a group of tongues-speaking Sabbath-keeping Pentecostals.

Unfortunately for Jones, that group decided to organize into what was to him the abomination of abominations—a denomination—and Jones had to forsake them. 33 Soon thereafter, Jones's health broke down. After a lingering illness, he passed to his rest in May 1923.

1. G. I. Butler, Leadership (Battle Creek, Mich.: 1873), p. 1.

2. G. I. Butler to E. G. White, Oct. 1, :

3. E. G. White to G. I. Butler, Oct. 14, :

4. E. G. White to Mary White, Nov. 4,

5. See G. R. Knight, From 1888 to Apostasy: The Case of A. T. Jones (Hasgerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1987), pp. 33, 178-193.

6. Uriah Smith to A. T. Robinson, Sept. 21, 1892.

7. E. G. White to E. J. Waggoner and A. T. Jones, Feb. 18, 1887.

8. A. T. Robinson, "Did the Seventh-day Adventist Denomination Reject the Doctrine of Righteousness by Faith?" (unpublished manuscript, Jan. 30, 1931).

9. E. J. Waggoner, The Everlasting Covenant (London: International Tract Society, 1900), p. v.

10. ____, The Gospel in the Book of Galatians (Oakland, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., p. 45.

11. G. I. Butler to E. G. White, Oct. 1,

12. G. I. Butler to E. G. White, Dec. 16, 1886.

13. "General Conference Proceedings," Review and Herald, Dec. 14, 1886, p. 779.

14. G. I. Butler to E. G. White, Oct. 1, 1888.

15. E. G. White to W. H. Healey, Dec. 9, 1888; E. G. White manuscript 15, 1888; E. G. White manuscript 13, 1889.

16. See, e.g., Uriah Smith to Ellen G. White, Feb. 17, 1890; Review and Herald, Sept. 23, 1884, pp. 616, 617.

17. D. T. Jones toj. D. Pegg, Mar. 17, 1890; D. T. Jones to W. C. White, Mar. 18, 1890; O. A. Olsen to G. C. Tenney, Mar. 20, 1890.

18. E. G. White, in Review and Herald Extra, Dec. 23, 1890, pp. 1, 2;E. G. White manuscript 3, 1891; D. T. Jones to R. M. Kilgore, Jan. 9, 1891; O. A. Olsen to R. A. Underwood, Jan. 16, 1891.

19. O. A. Olsen to J. H. Morrison, July 10, 1892; O. A. Olsen to E. J. Waggoner, July 27, 1892.

20. G. I. Butler, in Review and Herald, June 13, 1893, p. 377.

21. "Report of Conference for the Consideration of the Subjects of Righteousness by Faith and the Relation of Faith and Works, Held in Dr. Kellogg's Parlor on the Evening After the Sabbath, Feb. 18, 1893" (unpublished manuscript). (Italics supplied.)

22. S. N. HaskelltoE. G. White, Oct. 3,1899; E. G. White manuscript 26a, 1892; J. H. Kellogg to W. C. White, Oct. 2, 21, 1891; Sept. 9, 1892.

23. See Knight, pp. 178-193.

24. "Saving Health," Review and Herald, Nov. 22, 1898, p. 752. See also Knight, pp. 56-60, 167-171.

25. General Conference Bulletin, 1897, pp. 70, 71, 84-89.

26. See Knight, pp. 83, 84, 104-131.

27. E. G. White manuscript 15, 1888.

28. Eugene F. Durand, Yours in the Bkssed Hope (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1980), pp. 266-268; Uriah Smith to L. F. Trubey, Feb. 11, 1902; "Notice to Readers of the Review," Review and Herald, Feb. 25, 1902,p. 128.

29. A. G. Daniells to W. C. White, Jan. 21, 1910. '

30. E. J. Waggoner, The "Confession of Faith" of Dr. E. J. Waggoner, p. 14.

31. The Gathering Call, November 1916, p. 6.

32. See Knight, pp. 226-256.

33. The American Sentinel, September 1922, pp. 7, 8; October 1922, pp. 3, 4.

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George R. Knight is professor of church history at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary, Andrews University, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

February 1988

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